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Guillaume de Chassy: The Ugly and the Beautiful

By Published: April 9, 2007

A Musical Education

"In the beginning, it's quite simple, really. There's the music your parents listen to, at home. My parents listened to Schubert, the opera, Beethoven and Mozart. And my father listened to the Hot Fives of Louis Armstrong, continuously. All of the Hot Five records, and there aren't too many, but all the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, I know them by heart. An in fact for me, among jazz groups, there are not many equivalents to the Hot Five. On the level of their conception of playing, of ensemble playing, it's not far from perfection. Armstrong, he's a complete genius, you see. So, we listened to that and a lot of French chansons, Brel, Brassens, Trénet, Barbara. So you see, it was a very classical education, wasn't it?

"And in fact, jazz, I came to that by way of Bill Evans, You Must Believe in Spring (Warner Bros., 1977) and Miles Davis' Nefertiti (Columbia, 1967). I had some friends who made me listen to that; I understood nothing about it, nothing at all.

"For me, coming from classical music, I was entirely at home in the harmony there; I really felt just fine there. Very soon after, Monk; and finally, a lot of piano players.

"After that, I was studying to be an engineer. I had given up my studies of classical piano and began studying to be an engineer. During all my engineering studies, I listened to a lot of jazz records, and I transcribed everything that I heard. But, really, I didn't know anything! I had never been to a jazz school, I was learning all by myself, in fact. And so I listened, I transcribed, I listened, I transcribed. And as I had a good classical technique and all the vocabulary of harmony, I understood what I saw. I had worked with the music of Ravel and Debussy beforehand, you know, a lot of things, Bartók... On the other hand, what I didn't understand was the rhythm, I didn't understand very well that way of marking the rhythm."

An interesting challenge for the classically-trained jazz performer, but the rhythmic barrier was clearly a challenge he had overcome by the time of the Archipel solo concert in February 2007. There, he performed an unorthodox and entirely fresh version of Rodgers and Hart's "My Romance," notable for its driving rhythm. (Before he played the number, he asked if everyone had seen the 1934 Billy Rose musical Jumbo for which the tune was written. The audience responded warmly and he accepted them at their word, deadpan, "Good!")

"I put together groups—I'm a fairly organized person—I put groups together and I tried to organize concerts, with musicians who were much more advanced than I was, who played much better than I did. This was in Toulouse; I did my studies in Toulouse. At that time in Toulouse, there were a lot of active jazz clubs. So I learned like that, playing very, very badly, for months, trying things out with people who played a lot better than I did. And thus little by little I made the links between that and what I heard at home, what I was transcribing at home. Years later, I received my engineering degree.

"I went to work for the Ministry of the Environment as an engineer, and as I didn't have much free time, the music become a hobby. I continued to practice, as I could, and I got more and more offers to play in professional groups. I spent a lot of my vacations doing that. And one day I decided to take the step, to jump from a hobby to a professional activity.

"It was at that moment that some private companies wanted to hire me away from the Ministry of the Environment, to work for them, it was the right moment to take my decision. I went back to Toulouse—I had been in Strasbourg—I renewed my contacts with all the musicians down there. The scene was very active at the time, there were a lot of clubs, a lot of festivals, etc., and I really worked there. That is, I worked at the piano like a crazy person; I had to redo the basics, I had to become a professional, in fact, because I was not a professional. So: on my own. On my own, playing, putting on concerts with groups I was playing with, I played clubs, I played all the time, all the time, I worked a lot, a lot. And it was at that time that I did the Monk project.

"After that, I came to Paris. Musically, I did a lot of different things. I played with an Indian singer, Ravi Prasad, based in Toulouse. I wasn't really into jazz in the strictest sense of the term. I wasn't interested in standards, for example. I toured with the Monk group; I put together a group with piano, trombone and percussion. We did an improvised musical story. That was completely nuts, with a narrator, totally crazy, really funny. I began my collaboration with the flamenco dancer Ana Yerno." (Yerno would join de Chassy for a rousing finale at his recent solo concert: indeed, a percussive, flamenco version of "Bemsha Swing" is something to witness.) "Jazz, the jazz you hear in clubs, that didn't really interest me much, from time to time, you know?

"So all of this took a long time. Today, things are more focused. And jazz, you know, bebop, standards, I've been working quite seriously on that for five years. That's to say, every day, every day, every day I play standards. Every day. This morning, before you got here, I was working on standards.

"I'm past the age of being a 'young talent,' my path is a different one. I was an engineer, I worked for the environment, that's still a cause that's very important to me. I was very happy when I worked as an engineer, I wasn't at all frustrated. It wasn't at all: 'Oh, damn all these files!'—not at all, I was very happy doing that.

Guillaume de Chassy

"When I didn't have a record company and no one knew me, I didn't care, because I had different priorities. I had to search for many things, I had to listen to a lot of music, I had to write a lot of music, I had to meet a lot of different people. I had no precise direction because I wanted to try many things, you know.

"The opposite can happen as well, look at Keith Jarrett. When he was twenty, he was already Keith Jarrett. You listen to him with Art Blakey, or with Charles Lloyd, he's already Keith!" Even on the Fender Rhodes with Miles? "That's marvelous! The instrument doesn't work at all, the sound is rotten, the music is a mess, but Keith...!

"Now, today, everything is coming together. That is, I feel like I have constructed an artistic identity, and I'm trying to put all the pieces together. What makes me happy is that recognition is coming in a way that's not artificial, and based on things that I can legitimately call genuine; things that come from a long way back, as you can see."

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Selected Discography

Guillaume de Chassy, Piano Solo (Bee Jazz, 2007)

Guillaume de Chassy and Daniel Yvinec, Wonderful World (Bee Jazz, 2005)

Guillaume de Chassy and Daniel Yvinec, Chansons sous les bombes (Bee Jazz, 2004)

Guillaume de Chassy, Lunes : Cantate Jazz (Hortus, 2004)

Guillaume de Chassy and Daniel Yvinec, Ghost of a Song (Juste une Trace, 2003)

Guillaume de Chassy, Vue du Phare (Axolotl/Frémeaux&Associés, 2002)

Joël Trolonge Trio, Histoires (Scalen, 2001)

Guillaume de Chassy, Rimes (A Records/Dam, 1999)

Guillaume de Chassy, Mardi 29 (Scalen, 1998)

Guillaume de Chassy, Nouvelles aventures (Quoi de Neuf Docteur/Night & Day, 1996)

Guillaume de Chassy, Pour Monk (Mikeli/Night&Day, 1995)

Ravi Prasad, Ithal (Mikeli/Night&Day, 1994)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Courtesy of Guillaume de Chassy
Middle Two Photos: Courtesy of
Bee Jazz Records
Bottom Photo: Pierre Lebouc

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